Biscayne Bay, Fla. — At last.
After seven frustrating years, my campaign to catch a permit on fly rod while sight-fishing on the flats finally has come to a successful conclusion. On October 3, just after 11 a.m., I hooked, fought, caught, and released an 11 1/2-pounder that, by the way, was also tagged for scientific research. And what made the accomplishment even sweeter is that it took place in my home waters of Biscayne Bay, Fla.
The credit belongs to veteran flats guide captain Carl Ball of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who joined me in this project about four years ago. Together, we came close to getting the job done on several occasions, before mercifully closing the deal last week. And Ball wasnt the only one. I have fished with more than a dozen really accomplished guides since 2005 who found me plenty of permit on the flats of Miami, Key West, Bimini, Belize, Honduras, and Mexico. It wasnt their fault that I fell short. I think the difference this time was that I just came across the right fish. It was just dumb, eager, and hungry enough to pounce on the fly without hesitation.
For those of you unfamiliar with the difficulty of catching a permit in shallow water on a fly, lets just say its right up there with winning a seven-figure lottery prize, hitting a hole in one at Augusta National, or batting a grand slam in the ninth inning of a tied World Series. Among avid fly fishers, its the Holy Grail, rock star of the flats, and the crown jewel of saltwater angling.
The permit has achieved this vaunted status because of its natural wariness when in shallow water. This silvery, oval-shaped cousin of the jack family with the black sickle tail spends most of its time in the offshore waters of the Gulf, Atlantic and Caribbean. It only ventures onto the flats to feed mostly on crabs and shrimp and only when tide, wind and water temperature are to its liking. While feeding, the permit is on high alert for any signs of a predator in its watery universe kind of like a fugitive who sneaks down to town from the deep woods to sift through a garbage can in the dark. If anything looks hinky to the permit, it is gone in literally a flash.
The permit takes on about 100 IQ points when it arrives in the shallows. I have even seen them refuse perfectly-cast live crabs in the lightly-fished flats of the Bahamas. The odds of their gulping a manmade creation of fur, felt, glue, lead and feathers presented in a couple feet of water are prohibitive.
So heres how it happened:
Ball and I spent most of the morning staked out next to a shallow channel where school after school of permit moseyed unhurriedly on the incoming tide. Due to wind direction and the angle of the sun, I was forced to make back-casts to the fish, which looked like roundish brown blobs hovering just beneath the surface.
Trying to hook a fish on a back-cast (as opposed to the standard forward cast) is like a right-handed batter trying to swing from the right side of the plate. It feels weird; your synapses dont follow through and the cast just falls short when you are trying to drop the fly behind you. Oh, I managed to get the fly far enough for a couple of fish to follow it, but neither picked it up. Ball ties the fly himself with a feathered tail, lead eyes, gold flash, and a touch of orange and green.
Growing impatient, Ball at first tried to coach me. When I continued to cast badly, he gave up and put a live crab on a spinning rod and caught one himself. It weighed 13 1/2 pounds, and he tagged it then let it go.
A few more fish showed up after that, and Ball tried demonstrating how to translate a smooth forward cast with a tight loop on the fly line into an identical back cast that might actually land in front of a fish.
When no more permit appeared, Ball decided to move to another shallow channel a bit further south. As soon as we got there, things happened very quickly.
He had just put the pole down in the water on the edge of the flat when he spotted a permit about 50 feet away.
There he is! Twelve oclock. Can you see him? Ball shouted.
At first, I didnt see anything. Then I could just make out the light-brown blob below the surface, moving unhurriedly, not tailing.
I made two false casts of my 10-weight, then put the fly where I thought the permits snout was.
Strip! Strip-strip! Ball directed, indicating an erratic retrieval of the fly.
Out of nowhere, I saw a fish rush after the fly, then disappear.
Hes ON! Ball yelled. STRIP!
I yanked the fly line and felt it come tight then go slack. The permit was swimming straight for the boat still hooked up and I had to tighten up on all that slack line or I would lose the fish. But I suddenly found that my hands were too far apart one on the rod, one on the fly line at my side and the line was grower slacker by the second. In desperation, I grabbed it between my teeth and pulled, and mercifully, the fish began to power away from the boat. Line peeled off the deck in front of me in a blur, then zinged off the reel and the fish was into the backing in about 30 seconds.
Ball, who has faced this scenario a time or two, quickly cranked the outboard to chase the fish.
Even though I was using 20-pound tippet, it didnt slow the permit one bit. It took 20 minutes to bring it to the side of the boat where Ball seized it and put it in the live well.
I sat on the bow, stunned. Then we hugged. Then we put a streamer tag just behind the fishs dorsal fin, measured it (25 inches) and weighed it with a Boga Grip (11 1/2 pounds). We took turns snapping photos and put it back into the water. It swam haltingly at first, then flicked its substantial tail and disappeared.